National Geographic : 1997 Jul
I OR A COUPLE OF DECADES NOW the leaders of Europe have been struggling to implement a revolutionary and furi ously controversial concept: a single European currency. . Governments have fallen, fists have flown, and bitter curses have been exchanged in a variety of Romance and Germanic languages over this visionary idea. So explosive are the politics of the proposed Euro that some say the notion of a single coinage for so many different peoples is an impossible dream. Or is it? For there was a time -measured not in decades but in centuries when a single currency, a single code of laws, a single army, and a single emperor held sway over a vast swath of the Western world, including the heart of Europe, a large chunk of western Asia, and the northern tier of Africa, from the Atlantic to the Dead Sea. This was the Roman Empire, which pacified and unified the entire Mediterranean rim - a signal achieve ment in the sheer art of governing. Long before anybody thought of auto mobiles, airplanes, or e-mail, the emperors efficiently maintained their famous Pax Romana over a 3,000-mile-wide territory that today includes parts of more than 40 different nations. They did it with a genius for organi zation and a tolerance for cultural diversity that was interrupted now and then by bursts of utter ruthlessness. For a Roman tribune, trader, or tax collector traveling the 53,000 miles of paved road that spanned the empire in the third century A.D., a little prob lem like common coinage for 15 Western European countries would have seemed trivial. For some 50 million people back then, from the palmy seat of the Pyramids to the frosty moors of southern Scotland, the Roman denarius was accepted as coin of the realm. Still is, in a sense. When I visited the Musee National du Bardo in Tunis to see its Roman coins, I paid the admis sion fee for this exhibit of the denariusin Tunisian dinars. This month and next NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC will examine this mighty empire in a two-part series. This first article struggles with Rome's rise and fall. How did a minor farming settlement scattered on the hills above the Tiber River create the richest and strongest empire in Western history ?How did the Romans keep a vast and varied collection of peoples unified for so many centuries? And once this intricately designed, supremely rational imperial structure was in place, why did it fall asunder? Next month's installment will review the legacy the Romans bequeathed to the modern world in law, language, literature, architecture, government, military affairs, et cetera (one of the countless Latin phrases still in daily use).